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The coronavirus timeline for Louisiana is rather intriguing, to say the least.

  • On Jan. 11, China reported its first death from COVID-19 virus. Within 10 days, confirmed cases of the virus were reported in Japan, South Korea, Thailand and the U.S.
  • On Jan. 23, Wuhan, a city of more than 11 million, was cut off by Chinese authorities in an attempt to contain the spread of coronavirus.
  • The coronavirus outbreak was declared a public health emergency of international concern on Jan. 30.
  • The next day, travel from Asia to the U.S. was restricted.
  • On Feb. 5, the cruise ship Diamond Princess was quarantined. By Feb. 13, 218 passengers were infected.
  • On Feb. 6, a USA Today headline asked “When the threat of coronavirus end?”
  • The next day, a Chinese doctor who had first raised the alarm over COVID-19 died from the virus. In a week, more than 14,000 new cases were reported in Hubei Province.
  • France announced the first coronavirus death in Europe on Feb. 14. A week later, two cases were reported in Iran.
  • On Feb. 23, South Korea raised its threat alert level as concern about the spread of COVID-19 grew. That same day, Italy saw a major surge in cases as officials began locking down entire towns. By Feb. 24, Iran had 61 cases and 12 deaths, more than any other country but China.

Then, the next fateful day, on Feb. 25, nearly half-a-million people were allowed to crowd into the New Orleans French Quarter to celebrate Mardi Gras despite more than a month of clear signals that the threat was spreading and that the virus had already invaded the U.S.

Within two weeks, Louisiana would have its first case of COVID-19. The next day, two more were reported. All were in the immediate New Orleans area.

President Donald Trump has been on the receiving end of considerable criticism—and justifiably so—for his general lack of a cohesive plan to fight COVID-19 and for his delay in taking any action, choosing instead to call the threat a “hoax” designed to harm his presidency, making everything about him—as usual.

But officials in Louisiana could have been more proactive had there been trained, qualified leadership at the helm of the Louisiana Department of Hospitals.

Instead, LDH has been rudderless since former Secretary DR. REBEKAH GEE resigned, effective on Jan. 31. DR.  COURTNEY PHILLIPS has been named as her successor, but isn’t scheduled to assume her new duties until next month. In the interim, the state’s largest agency is being run by LDH executive legal counsel STEPHEN RUSSO.

A lawyer, not a doctor.

Russo’s lack of qualifications to address a major health crisis aside, he brought considerable BAGGAGE with him when he was appointed to fill in until Phillips’s arrival.

Accordingly, Russo must be asked about the threat of COVID-19: what did you know and when did you know it? (with apologies to former U.S. Sen. Howard Baker of the Watergate hearings fame).

In Louisiana’s case, the health of its citizens was placed in the care of one who lacked the professional knowledge of how to deal with an epidemic, much less a pandemic. Simply put, he was ill-equipped by training to properly read the tea leaves. Did he even know enough to seek the counsel of those who could?

So, even as the virus spread from China to Korea to Iran to France and inevitably, to America, with indications it wasn’t about to slow down, New Orleans was allowed to proceed with an influx of nearly half-a-million people, rubbing elbows (and more), eating, drinking and living in proximity—even as the clouds were gathering.

Look at how the corona virus spread in Louisiana. It started in Jefferson and Orleans parishes, soon became an ominous blob on the COVID-19 MAP, a blob centered at first in New Orleans.

Then, it began moving north and west. It soon reached St. James, Ascension, East and West Baton Rouge and as of today (March 23), exactly two weeks after the first, lone case was revealed, there are 1,172 cases in Louisiana—concentrated in the New Orleans-Baton Rouge area.

As of today, there have been 34 deaths in the state, third highest total in the nation, behind only New York’s 123 and Washington’s 98.

Hindsight, of course, is always 20/20.

But the signs were there and one must wonder if a qualified health professional had been leading LDH at this critical time, might Gov. Edwards have been given a heads-up to call off the Mardi Gras celebration?

Sure, it would have been a blow to the gut of the New Orleans tourist industry in the short term but no less of a blow to the entire state’s economy that has now transpired for the long term.

Had there been someone in charge who could look at the evolving timeline as events unfolded and hoisted the warning flags, there’s a chance we would not have the third highest death total in the nation.

There’s also the chance that Louisiana would not be the only state in the Deep South subjected to the necessity of a lockdown.

Cabinet members, after all, are appointed not only to administer individual agencies, but also to give advice and counsel to governors—and presidents—on actions that need to be taken in a timely manner.

 

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There is a man in Congress who can make Donald Trump appear to be the adult in the room.

There is a man in Congress who can make fellow Rep. Devin Nunes appear to be the voice of reason and restraint.

There is a man in Congress who can make fellow Rep. Lindsey Graham look like a paragon of consistency.

There is a man in Congress who can make fellow Rep. Jim Jordan appear to be a calming influence.

There is a man in Congress who can make just about anyone else seem like a tower of intellect.

That man is none other than Louisiana’s 3rd District U.S. Rep. Clay Higgins, aka the lawman who told Michael Cohen he’d arrested “thousands of people.” (His former boss, St. Landry Parish Sheriff Bobby Guidroz, says the number is closer to six. Maybe.)

Clay Higgins is the former used car salesman who once got CANNED by the Opelousas Police Department—or rather resigned in lieu of firing—for roughing up a citizen and then lying about it.

Clay Higgins is the same guy who then was fired by the St. Landry Sheriff’s Department for trying to commercialize his position as a public information officer with videos, T-shirts, a radio production, and, of all things, photo sessions like he was some kind of slick magazine centerfold model.

Clay Higgins is the same guy who then landed a position in the office of Lafayette City Marshal Brian Pope who would soon have his own legal problems.

Clay Higgins is the same guy who fell behind on his child support payments by about $100,000 but assured his ex-wife during his campaign for Congress that once elected, he would have access to all sorts of money.

Clay Higgins is the same one who called for the ERADICATION of all who might have any sympathy for Islamics.

Clay Higgins is the same one who, while tailgating with Trump on a trip to Germany, made a political video at AUSCHWITZ in violation of all manner of protocol and decorum.

Clay Higgins is the same one who ATTENDED A PAIR OF CONFERENCES, one hosted by a hate group and another by climate science deniers.

And while Trump takes his cue from Fox News, Higgins apparently takes his from Louisiana’s version of Rush Limbaugh, MOON GRIFFON.

Apparently taking Griffon’s advice to heart, the Cajun Barney Fife lit into Gov. John Bel Edwards on Tuesday over the governor’s proclamation prohibiting gatherings of more than 250 people—including church congregations.

Higgins, who likely hasn’t seen the inside of a church since the last funeral he attended, took particular umbrage at Gov. Edwards’s imposition of size restrictions on groups, saying in a LETTER to the governor, “…the decision to gather should be the choice of the individual or institution and not a mandate by any government entity. The State has no authority to enforce the proclamation nor any ban on worship.”

For whatever reason, Higgins has not deemed to hold Trump to those same standards even though Trump is calling for restricting gatherings to a much smaller number: 10.

Higgins also ignored is own BLOG POST in which he said, among other things, “All Americans, regardless of ideology, must be united in our effort to combat the coronavirus. We must prioritize the health and safety of American families.”

We couldn’t agree more. But sometimes being “united” means making sacrifices. This is one of those times. There is no question that things are going to get tight and people are going to suffer financially. But people are going to feel the economic effects regardless of whether or not John Bel Edwards imposes restrictions on the size of gatherings.

The proclamation makes more sense than that Florida preacher who urged his congregation to keep coming to services, saying, “If we die, we die for Jesus.” That, folks, is the epitome of selfishness; the preacher didn’t want to lose out on any “love offerings.” What an idiot.

In a nearly incoherent VIDEO, a grubby-looking Higgins, looking more like a homeless man than a member of Congress, ranted and rambled like a New Orleans wino about Edwards’s proclamation. While he called the governor’s action “stupid,” it was Higgins who came across as the poster child for stupid. Stand up comic Ron “Tater Salad” White must’ve had Higgins in mind when he said, “You can’t fix stupid.”

New Orleans Advocate columnist Stephanie Grace, apparently in a more charitable mood, refrained from accurately describing Higgins’s idiotic demagoguery for what it was: boorish grandstanding. She let him off the hook by saying he was “just out of line.”

I would add a couple of questions for Higgins:

  • What would you propose as an alternative?
  • Instead of slurring and mumbling some incoherent insult at the governor, why don’t you try and be a part of the solution to a very difficult situation?
  • Is this how the voters of the 3rd District elected you to represent them? Seriously?

A friend, appropriately offended by Higgins’s verbal mooning of the governor [who, by the way has displayed infinitely more leadership characteristics during the coronavirus epidemic than one Donald Trump], said simply, “If this guy gets re-elected, his constituents are as crazy as he is.”

 

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You’d think Gov. John Bel Edwards would be a little better at reading the tea leaves.

After all, it was Louisiana’s teachers who first pushed him over the top to win the governor’s election over David Vitter in 2015.

And the teachers again provided needed support when he was challenged by businessman Eddie Rispone who had the backing of would-be kingmaker Lane Grigsby.

So, how did Edwards reward teachers for their support?

A raise of $1,000 per year in 2019. That’s $83 per month before taxes—and that was nearly four years into his first term before he got around to doing that much.

Yes, I know a lot of workers in Louisiana didn’t get raises of $83 per month but before jumping in with that argument, consider what teachers are expected to do (other than teach in a classroom) and how their salaries stack up with other states.

Last April, the NEA released FIGURES that showed Louisiana’s teachers (before that $1,000-per-year boost) still ranked 13th lowest in the nation.

And those same figures showed that the national average teacher salary, adjusted for inflation, had actually decreased 4.5 percent over the previous decade. Teachers were paid 21.4 percent less than similarly-education and experienced professionals, the NEA study revealed.

The national average teacher salary increased from $59,539 for the 2016-17 school year to $60,477 for 2017-18,

The average pay for teachers in Louisiana was $50,256.

So, what did Edwards to this year to try and bring teacher into alignment with other states when he submitted his proposed budget for next year?

Crickets chirping. Nothing. Nada. Nil. Zip.

And his wife was a teacher before he was elected governor. His daughter is a school counselor.

As might be expected, teachers took umbrage at the governor’s slight—as well they should have.

An acquaintance offered a defense of sorts for the governor’s omission. “The Republican legislature wouldn’t approve another teacher pay raise anyway, so he just didn’t brother.”

My response to that is, “So what? Put it in the budget and put the onus on the legislators. Let them explain why Louisiana cannot support its teachers. There are, by the way, part-time legislators who pull down more than starting teachers in this state.

Gov. Edwards did finally reverse himself, but only after teachers bristled publicly. But you’d never know he truly felt their wrath when he offered up a $500 per year raise. That’s $42 per month, a little more than a dollar a day. You can’t even go to McDonald’s with that.

If Edwards is considering a run at John Kennedy’s Senate seat, he’d do well to remember the teachers.

And don’t give me that worn-out B.S. about teachers only working nine months a year. That’s pure bunk. No sooner than the school year is over than teachers must turn their attention to the coming year by preparing lesson plans, cleaning out classrooms, re-stocking supplies and attending meetings.

Teachers endure problems we can only imagine in our jobs. As a news reporter, I would get irate calls from subjects of my stories but try sitting across the desk from an arrogant parent who won’t accept the explanation that their kid, who never received discipline or help with his homework at home, is disruptive, a problem student and deserved that poor grade or suspension.

Teachers must watch for signs their students are abused at home. Ever had to do that in your job? Ever had to look at a bruised child and asked him or her to tell you what happened? It’s a pretty depressing responsibility and can leave teachers sickened with nightmares.

Sometimes teachers are called on to stop a bullet to save a child—and they do it, Alex Jones’s claims to the contrary notwithstanding.

Test papers are taken home by teachers who, while the rest of the family is watching American Idol, must plod through 25 or 30 test papers for grading. They sacrifice time with their own families so they can devote time to their jobs.

Teachers dip into their own pocketbooks to purchase materials for their classrooms. And believe me, that isn’t cheap. I knew a teacher in Lincoln Parish who bought shoes for a child who had none.

They are saddled with tons of paperwork other than test grading and they are burdened with bureaucratic requirements in preparation for standardized testing and if the kids don’t do well, it’s the teacher who bears the brunt of evaluations by politicians who decide who is and who isn’t a good teacher—without ever meeting the teacher or sitting in her classroom.

Teachers must step in to stop fights and God help her if she’s a little too physical with the kids. Might as well go ahead and retain legal counsel.

And sometimes a teacher spots potential in a kid no one else has seen. They take the student under their wing, nurture his/her talents, and develop a kid everyone thought had no future into a productive citizen. On that point, I speak from experience. Thank you, Mrs. Garrett, Miss Lewis, Miss Hinton, Mr. Peoples and Mr. Ryland. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

Teachers deserve better, Gov. Edwards. As a friend suggested, “Go big or go home.”

You gave state police enormous pay raises. You gave your cabinet members substantial increases.

Teachers, cafeteria workers and other school employees deserve nothing less than the same consideration you’ve given state troopers and cabinet members.

You’re beginning to look a lot like Bobby Jindal.

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A lot of people, the media included, expressed surprised that a company owned by Bernhard Capital Partners was awarded a multi-million-dollar consulting contract by the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development (DOTD) to plan the construction of a new bridge over the Mississippi River in Baton Rouge.

They shouldn’t have been—surprised, that is.

ATLAS TECHNICAL CONSULTANTS of Austin, Texas, was awarded the two-phase contract despite finishing well behind two other firms in evaluations by the state’s technical selection committee. The selection committee’s evaluation notwithstanding, the final selection was made by DOTD Secretary Shawn Wilson, an appointee of Gov. John Bel Edwards.

Atlas received 61.98 points from the committee while Baker International had 72.59 and AECOM had 74.01 points, more than 12 points higher than Atlas.

AECOM appealed Wilson’s decision but in Louisiana, such appeals to fairness and even playing fields generally fall on deaf ears and this was no exception as Wilson UPHELD his decision.

The entire process got Louisiana Congressman GARRET GRAVES in a tizzy, saying DOTD “better have good reasons” for doing a deal with Bernhard.

But as we said, no one should be surprised at Bernhard’s clout. He was, after all, once the state Democratic Chairman and was even rumored once as a potential candidate for governor.

As an illustration of his influence, in May 2017, LouisianaVoice did a story about how first Jindal and then Edwards pushed for a state water PRIVATIZATION CONTRACT with Bernhard Energy of Baton Rouge after a second company’s proposal was rejected in favor of seeking an oral presentation from Bernhard. Even then, another evaluation committee rejected Bernhard’s proposal, saying it was not in the state’s best interest to enter into the partnership with Bernhard because of the exceptionally high costs.

That was in 2015, in the last year of Jindal’s administration and despite the committee’s recommendations, he entered into a $25,000 contract with a Baton Rouge consulting firm to another “Evaluation and Feasibility Study” of Bernhard’s proposal. Even then, Bill Wilson of the Office of State Buildings rejected the proposal, saying it “would not be advantageous for the State of Louisiana in its current form.”

But in April 2017, well into the Edwards administration, Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne, in an email to Mark Moses, assistant commissioner for Facility Planning & Control, and Paula Tregre, director of the Office of State Procurement in which he said Edwards said the state “will have the RFP (Request for Proposals) on the street no later than May 31,” adding that the proposal “needs to be a top priority.”

So, of course it happened.

Again, no one should be surprised.

On Aug. 12, 2019, the Baton Rouge Advocate had a story announcing the deal whereby Bernhard will lease chiller systems at the state-owned Shaw Center for the Arts from the state for $3 million over 20 years and the state will buy back the chilled water—used to cool the building—for $6 million. Bernhard will also modernize energy systems at 31 state buildings, including the State Capitol, the Governor’s Mansion and state Supreme Court building in New Orleans, at a cost of $54 million to the state.

Another Bernhard company, Louisiana Energy Partners, will also sell extra chilled water to other companies in downtown Baton Rouge and the deal leaves open the possibility that Louisiana Energy Partners may enter into agreements with Louisiana colleges and universities to privatize their energy systems.

And, of course, who could ever forget the Blue Tarp Debacle following Hurricane Katrina in 2005—the first real indication of the stroke Bernhard has in this state.

The Shaw Group (since sold to Chicago Brick & Iron and Bernhard then started a series of new companies cited earlier in this post) was contracted to place tarpaulins over damaged roofs at a rate of $175 per square (one hundred square feet per square). That’s $175 for draping a ten-foot-by-ten-foot square blue tarpaulin over a damaged roof. Shaw in turn sub-contracted the work to a company called A-1 Construction at a cost of $75 a square. A-1 in turn subbed the work to Westcon Construction at $30 a square. Westcon eventually lined up the actual workers who placed the tarps at a cost of $2 a square.

Thus, the Shaw Group realized a net profit of $100 a square, A-1 made $45 dollars per square, and Westcon netted $28 dollars a square – all without ever placing the first sheet of tarpaulin. Between them, the three companies reaped profits of $173 per square after paying a paltry $2 per square. The real irony in the entire scenario was that the first three contractors – Shaw, A-1, and Westcon – didn’t even own the equipment necessary to perform tarping or debris hauling. By the time public outrage, spurred by media revelations of the fiasco, forced public bidding on tarping, forcing tarping prices down from the $3,000-plus range to $1,000, Shaw and friends had already pocketed some $300 million dollars.

The state threatened prosecution of those who it felt overcharged for a gallon of gasoline in Katrina’s aftermath but apparently looked the other way for more influential profiteers.

And no one was surprised.

 

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In terms of head-scratching bewilderment, the appointment of Stephen Russo as interim secretary of the Louisiana Department of Health (LDH)—even with that word “interim” thrown in—by Gov. John Bel Edwards makes about as much sense as his reappointment of Mike Edmonson as State Police Superintendent back in 2016.

The governor’s announcement of Russo’s appointment to fill in for the departed Dr. Rebekah Gee was made on Friday (Jan. 31).

Compounding the obvious lack of vetting, word is that while a brief story by Sam Karlin in the Baton Rouge Advocate quoted Edwards as saying he has a “long list” of potential candidates for permanent secretary, the fix is apparently in for the appointment of Courtney Phillips. Click HERE to read that story.

I’ll get to Phillips later. First, let me re-hash a couple of LouisianaVoice stories that featured Russo rather prominently—and not in a particularly favorable light.

LouisianaVoice on January 18, 2018, almost two years ago to the day, published a story detailing a sexual harassment lawsuit settlement by an LDH female employee. More specifically, the story told of how the perpetrator, Attorney Supervisor Weldon Hill, was shielded and protected by Hill’s boss, Executive Counsel Stephen Russo. You can read that story by clicking HERE.

When the woman complained to Human Resources and to Hill’s supervisor, she was moved from her eighth-floor office to a converted storage room on the fifth floor. She was not provided a telephone nor was she allowed to take her computer with her to her new location.

Besides the legal settlement, that lawsuit cost the state more than $76,000 in LEGAL FEES.

We followed that story with another exactly three months later on April 18 in which we published a string of emails written by Russo on his state computer on state time on behalf of Dr. Gee during her negotiations  with LSU to retain her medical license, credentials and board certifications through continued part-time employment as a physician at LSU Health Sciences Center in New Orleans.

(That alone should have triggered conflict of interests questions since she would be performing work for an agency overseen by—and which receives funding from—the agency she was heading at the time.)

Her appointment as LDH secretary was announced on Jan. 5, 2016, and by 3:12 p.m. on Jan. 13, Russo was already emailing LSUHSC Chancellor Dr. Larry Hollier on Dr. Gee’s behalf.

A rank and file employee would be called on the carpet and perhaps fined for such a breach of ethics. A civil service employee of another agency, for example, was once fined $250 because a vendor had sent her—unsolicited—a baked ham for Christmas.

So, now the message is clear: vastly different standards apply dependent upon whether you are a rank-and-file civil servant or a privileged executive counsel of an agency. Play your political cards right and you might even get appointed interim secretary. Never mind those sexually harassed employees you leave in your wake.

Which now brings us back to Courtney Phillips, a Port Sulphur native who previously worked as Deputy Secretary of LDH, then known as the Department of Health and Hospitals (DHH), in the Bobby Jindal administration. She left that position in February 2015 to become CEO of the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services.

On Feb. 13, 2015, LouisianaVoice posted a story dealing with her employment at DHH during which time her mother was hired as a DHH employee, raising questions of NEPOTISM.

She left Lincoln in August 2018 for Austin to become Executive Commissioner of the Texas Health and Human Services Agency but not before leaving a path of destruction and low morale in her old agency.

On March 6, 2018, BRAD GIANAKOS, chief counsel for the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, by all accounts a professional who cared deeply about his work, was summoned to the office of the agency’s chief operating officer where he was summarily fired and escorted out of the building.

He wasn’t the only one. Others met similar fate with no explanation other than the agency wanted to move “in a different direction.”

But when Gianakos interviewed for other state jobs, he found the doors closed. He concluded that he was being blackballed even though there never any allegations of wrongdoing or criticisms of the job he had done for two decades at HHS.

A month later, he was dead. Suicide.

And four months later Phillips moved on, leaving behind an agency missing many longtime managers and administrators who also left but for different reasons: a harsh working environment.

And now, less than four years after leaving Louisiana in the broad daylight and less than two years after departing Lincoln, she may again be on the move—this time back to Louisiana where she will rejoin Russo.

It’s enough to make you scratch your head in bewilderment.

 

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